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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

How Visual Effects Made Modern Superhero Movies Feel Real

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In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman, and in the process turned the fledgling art form of comic books into a blockbuster success.

But it would take almost 70 years before our favorite caped crusaders finally conquered America’s greatest cultural export: cinema. Sure, some superheroes found some early success on the silver screen, like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman, but those films were exceptions to the rule. For the most part, the practical effects technology of the time just wasn’t enough to convincingly recreate one of the most important parts of comics: the powers of our favorite heroes.

All that changed in the early 2000s thanks to the increased adoption of computer generated imagery. Of course, some CGI from the early 2000s was very, very bad. But once filmmakers stopped treating CGI as a silver bullet and started using it as just another tool in the toolbox, literally anything became possible and the only thing limiting a heroes’ powers was the filmmakers’ imagination.

As fans vote in yet another round of IGN’s Super Movie Madness, we’re continuing our investigation into what separates good superhero movies from great ones. And this time, we’re looking at superpowers. So let’s examine some of the most iconic examples of how directors have brought their heroes’ powers to life.

Not So Fast

Super speed is a useful quality in a hero, but it isn’t particularly rare. Characters like, Superman, Quicksilver, Speed, and all the speedsters have it. Which is probably why it was one of the earliest powers to get translated into live-action.

After the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, CBS wanted in on the action and created the Flash, but it only survived for one season. Still, this was the first time Barry Allen used his superspeed in front of a camera. And to bring his powers to life, they relied heavily on in-camera tricks. To get the motion blur effect, they used two Flashes at once and shot them using a slow shutter speed. Then once in post, they sped up playback to make it all look like it happened faster.

The slow shutter speed, rudimentary by today’s standards, recreates the old comic book artist hack to visually communicate motion by using repeated images and speed lines.

Two decades later, Joss Whedon upped the production value on the motion blur effect with Quicksilver for Avengers: Age of Ultron by adding the blue speed line trails that have been following Quicksilver for decades in comics.

But when it comes to the most iconic depiction of superspeed in film, nothing tops Quicksilver’s kitchen sprint in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Before this movie, when directors wanted to make things happen at superhuman speeds, it usually involved figuring out how to artificially speed events up. But X-Men director Bryan Singer had a different idea. He was going to do the exact opposite – slow down time so the audience can experience superspeed the same way the hero does. And that’s how we got the most memorable scene in the film where Quicksilver not only saves Magneto, Wolverine, and Professor X from getting shot, but also revels in the ample time he has to screw with the guards while he disarms them.

But really, it’s the use of “Time in a Bottle” that makes this scene live in our collective memory rent-free. Visually speaking, these superspeed effects have traditionally been designed to recreate the design language used by comic book artists to imply motion in a static panel, but comic book artists never had to think of what superspeed sounds like. The soundscape is fertile ground for a director to create something wholly original, but they usually just rely on a zip or whoosh sound effect. But Singer did something different: He used Jim Croce to sell the experience.

Of course, the unsung heroes here are all the technicians that worked their asses off to combine the various sources of footage and effects into one coherent and polished scene.

To get the slow-motion effect, Singer and company photographed a lot of the sequence at 3200 frames per second. That’s over 130 times faster than the speed at which movies are traditionally played back. So in shots where you see things hovering in mid-air, it’s because some of them actually are. Yes, a lot of that food shrapnel was added in post, but having just a few real objects in there gave the VFX artists something tangible to mimic and helped them better cloak their animations in reality.

The shots of Quicksilver running on the wall were actually just green-screen of Evan running on a treadmill at 250 frames per second. And the playful moments where Quicksilver messes with the guards were shot in real life at 120 fps.

What makes this scene really stand out is the sheer technical accomplishment of it all. This scene was shot in slow motion using a variety of frame rates and cameras, and then it was composited together. Green-screen shots of Evan were layered on top of plates from the shoot on set, and then all the CGI was added in. All those prominently showcased bullets, foods, and fluids were all fake, but were crucial to selling Quicksilver’s speed.

The point is that this meticulously choreographed ballet of speed, chaos, and particle physics was such a radical leap forward from other bullet-time sequences that even the Flash himself seemed to pay homage to it a few years later in Justice League.

Creative Destruction

When reimagining a hero for the silver screen, a lot of thought goes into visualizing their signature power. Wolverine has his claws. Spider-Man has his webs. And Aquaman talks to fish. Then there are heroes like Superman, whose powers are essentially unlimited. That could be a boon for a filmmaker, except for the fact that Supes’ powers have probably been recreated for film and television more than any other hero’s.

So if you’re Zack Snyder and you’re attached to direct the sixth Superman movie, how do you make Clark’s powers seem fresh again? By combining them all into one epic battle and leveraging good ol’ fashioned fight choreography, wirework, and cutting edge CGI to exacerbate the damage two feuding Kryptonians could have on a city.

The Superman vs. Zod battle in Man of Steel may have been done before in Superman II, but not like this. And that’s because the technology of 1980 simply couldn’t simulate the large-scale destruction that makes Snyder’s battle so visceral.

Part of the reason Snyder’s take on Kryptonian superpowers is so unique is because of the film’s overt emphasis on brute force. When Zod unleashes his heat vision, it not only vaporizes an entire office floor but also compromises the structural integrity of the building, forcing Superman to fly out as it buckles around him.

Later in the same fight, as Zod and Clark continue to duke it, Zod throws Clark into a building. But because of Zod’s sheer strength, Clark slams through four other buildings before coming to a stop, completely unharmed. In Christopher Reeve’s fight with Zod, he took a haymaker that sent him reeling into the side of one building, which cushioned the blow and caused minor property damage. While those effects were cutting edge in 1980, now it just feels quaint.

And that’s because the CGI technology used in Man of Steel was decades away from being invented. To do something even remotely similar, director Richard Donner and his team would have had to build an unfathomable amount of miniatures to destroy and then design shots that seamlessly blended the live-action with the destruction of the models. And this doesn’t even include the practice of building multiple models for multiple takes. In Man of Steel, VFX artists created over 32 square miles of CGI Metropolis to destroy. And then the artists relied on Houdini, a visual effects program, to render all the complex building demolition and particle simulations needed to complete Snyder’s vision of sheer destruction.

In one sequence, Michael Shanon as Zod is straight-up raging as he scales the side of a building, which makes for some capital-A acting considering he’s actually just awkwardly leapfrogging across a green riser attached to some wires (with the building added later via CGI). But aside from Shanon’s always-on smoldering intensity, what uniquely sells the force of the sequence is the effects. A force ripple across the facade of the building before it cascades down into a billion pieces completely sells the energy that’s expelled as these two titans just careen through Metropolis’ most valuable real estate.

Snyder uses everything in his toolbox to showcase the full extent of Superman and Zod’s powers, making this scene the most exhilarating Superman fight ever. Through this cavalier display of wholesale destruction, Snyder again cemented himself as one of the most creative action scene directors.

The Transformation

When it comes to superhero movies, it's crucial that filmmakers nail the transformation scene because it could be one of the most visually recognizable moments of the film. Eddie Brock first learns of the symbiote living inside of him only after it helps him escape danger by biting off some merc’s head. Upon uttering his magic word, Billy Batson is transformed into his full adult potential. And once the meek bank teller Stanley Ipkiss puts on the Mask, he changes into a zoot-suited green-faced troublemaker that uses Tex Avery-inspired cartoon mayhem to get the girl and inadvertently piss off the mob.

Many comic book films focus their visual effects efforts on the aftermath of the transition, but there is one movie that chose to flip the script: Captain America: The First Avenger. In this film, it's not Steve Rogers the super soldier that’s the illusion, it’s his scrawny pre-serum self that is.

A ton of work went into making Chris Evans look like he was a five-foot-seven-inch, 140-pound weakling. And it all started on set with Evans actually shooting all his scenes as “scrawny” Steve. Once they got Evans’ performance in the can, the filmmakers brought in a smaller actor to be his body double.

To make sure the VFX artists had everything they needed to complete the shots, the filmmakers also shot extra takes with Chris in front of a green-screen and clean background shots with none of the actors in the frame at all. Once production was completed, it was time for the arduous job of digitally replacing the body double’s face with Chris Evans. But they couldn’t just cut out the actor's face, shrink it down and slap it on the double. The visual effects artists took a lot of time to meticulously tweak specific facial features of Evans. The effect worked insanely well. Scrawny Steve still holds up today, a decade later, and that’s because they prioritized the character of Steve Rogers over the glitz and glam of Captain America.

It took 70 years for films to convincingly recreate comic book artists’ imaginations on the silver screen. But directors like Bryan Singer, Zack Snyder, and Joe Johnston didn’t simply “adapt” still images. They used their own creativity and technical knowledge to do something comic book artists only dreamed of: bring the characters to life, superpowers and all. In the late '90s, the comic book industry was on the verge of collapse, but it's films like these that introduced superheroes to millions of new fans and made these heroes some of the most recognized characters in all of fiction.

Stars Who Were Almost Superheroes

What are your favorite cinematic depictions of superpowers? Let us know in the comments. And don't forget to vote to determine the best superhero movie in IGN’s Super Movie Madness!

And for more Super Movie Madness deep dives be sure to check out How Action Scenes Can Make a Superhero Movie Great (in Three Acts) or How Supervillains Illuminate Our Heroes.

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